Daunting road ahead for nuclear power

M. SOMASEKHAR | Updated on December 26, 2011


The Department of Atomic Energy is bullish on the power programme, but achieving the target of 20,000 MW by 2020 is plagued by resource crunch, technology issues and environmental problems.

At the end of October 2011, India's installed capacity of nuclear power stood at 4780 MW. The ambitious aim of the Atomic Energy establishment, set at the beginning of the decade, is to reach 20,000 MW by 2020.

In the last 10 years, with consistent backing by both the BJP-led NDA Alliance and the Congress(I)-led UPA Alliance, the Nuclear Power Corporation, which drives the power programme, has added roughly 2800 MW only.

During the XI Five-Year Plan, it planned to add a capacity of 2660 MW through completion of ongoing projects. Further, starting construction work on eight Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) of 700 MW each, and another eight Light Water Reactors (LWRs) of 1000 MW each, with major import options were planned, as per the Nuclear Power Corporation.


The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) had, during the mid-1980s, set a target of installing a capacity of 10,000 MW by 2000. It barely managed to reach around 2000 MW. The reasons attributed were, resource crunch, technology issues, environmental problems, among other issues.

The recent nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, the shortage of uranium, the questions raised about the French reactor design of Areva, the growing opposition to new power projects proposed in the country, as well as the earlier record of the DAE have cast aspersions on how close it will get to the ambitious figure of 20,000 MW.

The Centre has, in principle, given a nod for 5 new greenfield sites in the states of Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and West Bengal. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) is going in for bigger format reactors of the indigenous 700 MW and imported 1000 MW types. It has successfully developed the capability to build 700 MW reactors of the PHWR type. For the latter, it is in discussion with GE & Westinghouse of US, Areva, some other French companies, and Russians, who are already in the process of completing two 1000 MW units in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu.

The disastrous events in Fukushima have acted as a shot in the arm for anti-nuclear campaigners. There are also genuine fears among the people regarding the general safety of the operating reactors in the country, though the nuclear establishment is quick to respond to the contrary.

The consequence of all these developments has been a slowdown in the expansion programme of the Nuclear Power Corporation, which spearheads the nuclear energy programme. The PM has asked for a thorough examination of the safety features of the reactors. The anti-nuclear lobby has filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), while protests are on the rise at Jaitapur in Maharashtra, a new site for a large reactor project, which got the approval for work to begin.

In Kudankulam, protests have been getting bigger. The Chief Minister, Ms J. Jayalalithaa herself wrote to the PM, who, in turn, has assured that all safety aspects are in place. The Russians have also come out strongly, claiming that the reactors, which are in the advanced stage of construction, are the best globally, in terms of safety features.

The NPCIL, has, however, gone a step further, and its Chairman and Managing Director, Mr S. K. Jain, recently alleged that the protests have taken an international character, with anti-nuclear groups from Finland, France, Australia, Germany and the US also joining the locals in the campaign.

There is also the question of ageing of the existing reactors. For example, the reactors at the Tarapur Atomic Power Station are around 40 years old, while the Rajasthan, Madras and Narora plants also are inching close to 30 years. If the average life cycle of a reactor is 40 years, then the NPCIL is sure to have more than half a dozen of the existing 20 operational plants ready for decommissioning by 2020. This will bring in additional costs and challenges of decommissioning as well.

With questions raised regarding the design of the French EPR reactors, which were supposedly offered to India when the nation's premier Mr Nicolas Sarkozy had come to India last year, the slow progress in agreement with American companies for reactors (nuclear liability issues), and the growing din of protests, the target of reaching 20,000 MW by 2020 definitely looks distant.

Interestingly, the DAE, which was emboldened with the India-US agreement, the civil nuclear pact with France, Canada, the shifting mood among the Nuclear Supply Group towards technology as well as assurances of fuel supply, came out with a much bigger plan in October 2010, to raise the installed capacity to 63,000 MW by 2032.


The fuel scenario isn't too bright either. A couple of years ago, it turned bleak, with no new mines, and complete dependence on output from Jaduguda in Jharkhand. Consequently, the power stations faced a shortage, and capacity factors of producing electricity dropped. However, post the India-US agreement, some welcome consignments of supply from France and Kazakhstan saved the situation. The Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad, which caters to the entire fuel needs of the nuclear power programme, is, for the moment, comfortable, and is readying to supply to a couple of upcoming large units in Rajasthan.

However, to meet the demands of the ambitious 2020 target, a combination of domestic and imported uranium is a must. While an import tie-up has been forged on the domestic front, the Uranium Corporation of India Limited, which mines uranium for the programme, has been pitching hard to expand its activity to Andhra Pradesh, Gulbarga in Karnataka, Meghalaya and within Jharkhand. But here again, there are land issues and groups protesting against the projects.

The DAE pins big hopes on its project in Tummalapalle in Kadapa district of AP. It announced a massive find of uranium reserves in the village, estimated to be 49,000 tonnes in July. This would be enough to support around 8000 MW capacity for 40 years. It is estimated that a 700 MW plant would require 100 tonnes per year. DAE is confident that the plant will become operational by the end of 2011. At present, it has only two functional mines, both in Jharkhand, and the total estimated reserves of uranium are 1,70,000 tonnes.

The Department has always been bullish on the power programme. It has recently said that 14 units of the 700 MW reactors would be set up in the next few years, which means an addition of roughly 10,000 MW. It is proactively trying to tell the media and people that its reactors are safe, and that it is alive to people's concerns.

Published on November 02, 2011

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